D-Day Medal of Honor displayed

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Hundreds of motorists in McKees Rocks drive by a monument to John "Joe" Pinder each day, most without realizing who he was or what he did 70 years ago today.

His was one of thousands of sacrifices on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

An Army radio technician originally from McKees Rocks who later lived in Burgettstown, he repeatedly waded into the surf off Omaha Beach despite severe wounds and retrieved desperately needed radio equipment.

Hit by mortar shrapnel, machine gun slugs and finally a sniper's bullet, he died on the beach on his 32nd birthday and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military decoration.

"The indomitable courage and personal bravery of Technician Fifth Grade Pinder was a magnificent inspiration to the men with whom he served," wrote President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Brave acts large and small were not uncommon at Normandy, where 156,000 Allied troops splashed ashore in history's greatest invasion.

But only 13 men received the Medal of Honor for the campaign, which lasted until mid-July.

That list includes another soldier from Western Pennsylvania, John D. Kelly, a corporal from Venango, Crawford County, recognized for action on June 25 near the port of Cherbourg. He was killed elsewhere in France in November 1944.

Among the medal recipients are four who received it for valor on June 6: Pinder, Jimmie Montieth, Carlton Barrett and Theodore Roosevelt Jr.

Montieth of Virginia also died on Omaha Beach. Barrett served on Omaha but survived; he died in 1986. Roosevelt, a brigadier general and son of the former president, fought on Utah Beach and died of a heart attack six days later at age 56.

The Medal of Honor is rare, but visitors to Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Oakland can now see Pinder's medal on display as part of a special exhibit that also includes his Purple Heart, Bronze Star, the citation signed by FDR and other items.

The hall already had five Medals of Honor from the Civil War, the Indian Wars, WWII, Korea and Vietnam, but this one is different because of its association with an iconic day.

"His comes from a really specific date that is very important in history," said Michael Kraus, the curator. "This is a date like Dec. 7 or July 4. It's a huge day in American history."

The medal had long been in storage at the McCandless home of Joe's late brother, Harold, a bomber pilot taken prisoner by the Germans.

Harold, who died in 2008, had asked that his brother's artifacts be donated to Soldiers & Sailors after his death.

Harold's daughter, Jean Kolarik of Marshall, gave the hall the medals in January, along with her uncle's wallet, letters home, a picture of his girlfriend and his necklace with a gold baseball.

Before he was drafted in 1942, Joe was a minor league pitcher in Florida with hopes of making the major leagues despite his rather advanced age.

The war years were hard on the Pinder family, and the scars ran deep long after. The boys' mother, Laura, died in 1942 while they were both in training. They then saw plenty of action in Europe, Harold as a B-24 Liberator pilot and Joe with the First Infantry Division, the "Big Red One," in Algeria, Tunis and Sicily.

But no combat could compare to Omaha Beach.

Joe's heroism there has been described in detail by fellow soldiers, and it's also recounted in a new book, "The Dead and Those About to Die," by John McManus.

Like many citizen soldiers on D-Day, Joe did not wither under fire and did his job.

"He just felt that 'We can't lose this equipment,' " said Mr. McManus, a professor at Missouri University of Science and Technology. "He was not really thinking of himself."

His efforts were not in vain; the radios he salvaged proved critical in the battle for the beachhead, allowing the Allies to call in fire support.

Ms. Kolarik still marvels at her uncle's bravery.

"I can't wrap my mind around that," she said. "You have to wonder what made them go on."

Joe was born in 1912 in McKees Rocks, the son of a steelworker and a homemaker, and grew up with Harold and a sister, Martha. The family later moved to Butler, where Joe graduated from Butler High School in 1931.

He was smart, good-looking and athletic, with a passion for baseball. He played minor league ball in Pennsylvania in the 1930s and in one exhibition game twice retired Josh Gibson of the Pittsburgh Crawfords.

In 1938, he moved to Florida to pitch for a Chicago White Sox farm club, the Sanford Lookouts.

A local paper there said his curveball was "dreaded" by the other teams and that he had the "stamina and courage" to play in the major leagues someday.

In the early 1940s he played in Florida, Georgia and Alabama, pitching his last game in August 1941.

Then the war came.

He and Harold headed off for training, coming home once in May 1942 after the death of their mother.

Then they shipped off to face their fates across the ocean.

Joe, part of the 16th Infantry Regiment, participated in the North African campaign against the Afrika Korps and the invasion of Sicily. By November 1943, he was back in England preparing for the Normandy invasion.

Meanwhile Harold was flying with the 44th Bomb Group. On his 10th mission in January 1944, German fighters shot his plane down in the Ardennes. He hid for six weeks with the help of the Belgian underground but was finally captured and spent the rest of the war in a Belgian POW camp.

He was there the following August when he received a letter from his father saying that Joe had been killed at Normandy.

"We could walk around inside a barbed-wire enclosure for exercise. When I got the letter, I walked for a couple of hours," he recalled in 1996, when McKees Rocks dedicated a plaque to Joe.

On the morning of June 6, Joe's birthday, his regiment was part of the first wave headed to Omaha Beach. His landing craft was filled with men from the headquarters company.

German artillery and mortar shells rained down on the boats. One exploded near Joe's craft, perforating the hull and wounding many of the men aboard.

The craft started to sink 100 yards out, forcing the crew to drop the ramp. Machine guns opened up as the men struggled to make it ashore in waist-deep water.

Joe hefted his 40-pound radio and started in, but he made it only a few yards before he was hit in the left side of the face. While some accounts say a machine-gun slug struck him, Mr. McManus said it was more likely hot shrapnel from a mortar shell.

Either way, he held the hanging flesh of his face with one hand and hauled the massive radio onto the beach with the other.

Refusing to take cover or accept medical treatment, he returned repeatedly to the surf to collect other radio gear that wounded men had dropped. On one trip, machine-gun slugs hit him in both legs, but he still didn't seek help.

Weak from blood loss, he was working to set up the radios and establish communication when he was hit a third time, probably by a sniper's bullet, and died.

Half a year later, in January 1945, an Army major presented Joe's father with the Medal of Honor.

"He was a good soldier all his life and he died like one," John Pinder Sr. said. "But I wish he was coming home."

Joe was buried at Normandy. His body came home in 1947 and was buried at Grandview Cemetery in Florence, Pa., where a marble monument honors him.

Two years later, an Army barracks at Zirndorf, Germany, was named for him. The building was later torn down, but a business district on the site today is called Pinder Park.

Over the years, reporters usually came around on June 6 to talk to Harold about his brother and do the obligatory D-Day stories. He always obliged, if a bit reluctantly.

"I don't think most of the people realize," he lamented in one interview, "what these young men did for them during World War II."

Seven decades after D-Day, Joe's Medal of Honor at Soldiers & Sailors' Hall of Valor may provide some understanding.

"It's a national treasure," Mr. Kraus said.

Torsten Ove: tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1510.

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